In brief: “Can’t” is a loaded word. Perhaps it’s time we de-stigmatized it.
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Sometimes I just can’t.
As a lifelong overachiever, this was a hard reality for me to accept. Being productive was of the utmost importance in my house growing up and I realized early that if I wanted to go to college and “make something of myself,” I’d have to achieve my way there. I was in honors classes by seventh grade and by eighth I had four or more hours of homework a night.
In high school I took all the Advanced Placement (AP) classes I could squeeze into my schedule, was drum major of our marching band — a two night per week, all day Saturday commitment, was active in my church’s youth group, worked three days a week at an animal hospital, volunteered, and even took a class at 6:55am before school started my senior year. I wanted to go to college and needed a scholarship. There were no days off. No free afternoons. No sleeping in. I was a productivity machine.
It paid off. I graduated with a 4.3 on a 4.0 scale in the top twenty of my class (we were a whole group of overachievers) and my grades, activities, and SAT score earned me a half-tuition scholarship to a great private college two hours from home. I intended to keep up the pace through the pre-med program and go to veterinary school. (Vet school is more competitive than med school because there were only 26 programs in the country at the time.)
Then I burned out.
Or so I thought. Now I get that it was my lifelong, undiagnosed ADHD catching up to me. I couldn’t smart my way through the inability to focus when classes required so much memorization. Since I didn’t know I had a disability, I blamed myself. I cried. I was immobile. I simply couldn’t.
I struggled with guilt and feelings of laziness. I became more frustrated which heightened the anxiety and started a cycle I couldn’t will my way out of. I felt useless — like a fraud. Maybe I’d just faked my way to that point?
When I added an English major and began writing for the newspaper, I found new life. I managed to work a 30-hour/week job, keep it together in my biology classes, fly through the pre-requisits for the English degree and write 25-30 hours/week for the newspaper. I was sleeping four hours a night, but I didn’t care.
Then I graduated. Into a shit job market no one was discussing and hit a wall. Again. I blamed myself. Again. If I was smart enough and motivated enough, I thought, I could just do the work, do something, figure something out. Why couldn’t I fix it?
Probably because I simply couldn’t. Sometimes I still can’t.
“Can’t” has an ugly connotation. But it’s just a word. Sometimes it’s even the right word. I can’t run a marathon. I can’t drive a race car. I can’t perform brain surgery. I can’t see very well without my glasses.
I also can’t fly.
And I have days where I can’t work. Putting one foot in front of the other is a fucking nightmare that takes all the will power I can muster. Nothing has to happen — that’s the beauty of anxiety, it doesn’t always need a reason — for this to be the case. Some days are just a bust. Here’s the thing: that’s ok.
When I say “I can’t” people flip out. They start throwing platitudes and praise at me. “Look at all you’ve accomplished!” and “But you’re great!” Thing is, I didn’t say I hadn’t accomplished anything or that I wasn’t great. Saying “I can’t” isn’t a value judgement on my abilities or my worth. Sometimes it’s simply true and acknowledging my limitations makes it possible for me to adjust and work around them.
We have to stop pretending that “can’t” is a dirty word.
Most of us have talents and interests and certain physical attributes that combine to create a check-list of things we can do. The flip side to that means there are things our specific personal make-ups aren’t designed to do. Understanding what you’re good at necessarily means understanding what you aren’t good at. Sometimes that’s as simple as your not being interested in a thing; sometimes it’s because your brain just doesn’t compute the necessary components to do it.
Now, like any word or phrase, “can’t” can be used to beat yourself up. The way you say “can’t” is super important. When I say “I can’t” go back to bartending because it almost killed me, that’s not me admitting a fault or frailty. It’s me knowing that isn’t an option and I shouldn’t waste my time investigating that as a solution to a budget crisis. When I say “I can’t” write today, it is me acknowledging that I’m overstretched, in need of “off” time, and have to shut down computers and phones to let my brain recharge because I’m jumpy and anxious and unproductive.
When we disallow “I can’t,” we reinforce self-blame. If there’s nothing “I can’t” do, then I necessarily should be able to do anything. And when I fail, it’s my fault. When I fail under those conditions, I don’t seek help or guidance. I don’t look for outside factors that contributed to the failure because I should be able to do it on my own!
Looking at a situation or goal or attempt that didn’t go as we wanted and saying, “Wow, I can’t do that” gives us the space to investigate why we couldn’t do it. Sometimes it’s not amongst our talents and we can find other things to spend time on that we can do. Sometimes we just need help from the right place to turn “can’t” to “can.” Sometimes therapy helps determine the difference; a good counselor will hear when you’re being self-defeating and when you’re simply cutting your losses and moving on to another path or activity. Sometimes we have a hidden disability that needs addressing — one that would remain hidden if we refused to acknowledge the “can’t” and seek help for it.
I’m on nanny duty for a 72-hour shift each week and work at least 50 hours on top of that. As I structure my deadlines and pitches and media spots — and, when I can, actual personal enjoyment time — I have to build “can’t” time into my schedule. I have about three to four “bad days” a month and I don’t get warning when they’re going to happen. So my Google calendar has blank spaces for shifting things around just in case a bad day hits. That allowance has reduced the number of bad days. I’m no longer terrified of an “I can’t” day because it won’t make or break me. Reducing the fear has alleviated some of the general anxiety and the cycles don’t self-perpetuate the way they used to when I knew allowing myself a day off unplanned was going to make the following several days a living nightmare.
Having my ADHD finally diagnosed and pursuing treatment has also reduced my bad days. Mainly, that’s because my “can” days are so much more productive. And I know I have Adderall in my back pocket for when a “can’t” day meets a deadline “you have to whether you feel like it or not” day while we’re getting my daily meds to the right dosage.
But I still have “can’t” days. And that’s OK. I don’t blame myself anymore. I’m not lazy or weak because I have a bad day. I’m human — the sort of human who has been through some shit and is managing to fight all the way to well.
My “well” might look different than yours. I can’t work in a typical 9-5 job, survive in a cubicle, or a perform at a standard 40-hour gig. My brain is atypical — which means there are things I can do that others can’t. Knowing your “can’t” vs “can” will show you some amazing things you never realized about yourself because you were too busy suppressing the urge to acknowledge that you “can’t.”
So the next time you stop yourself from saying “I can’t,” take a moment. Why did you stop yourself? Unless you’re suppressing nerves about something that stretches you and helps you grow that you want or need to do, let yourself finish the sentence. You might find that the flip side to “I can’t” is a shiny, new “I can.”
Note: If you have something you want to rant about, let people know, vent over, or add to the #GetWell2015 project and discussion, just email me: KatieSpeakMail@gmail.com. I won’t be able to cover everything that’s important because I’m writing from a personal perspective and I haven’t been through everything there is to go through. Pitch me or send me what you’ve got — it can be short or medium-lengthed and I probably am not going to ask for edits. I’d like to include some other voices because poverty, wellness, and stigma affect a massive range of people and experiences.
This post is an entry in my year-long project documenting all the messiness and inconvenience and stigma of trying to get well in our culture. You can subscribe, follow, and join in the journey at #GetWell2015 here and on Twitter.